Will PageRank Expiration Threaten Google's Dominance?

  • PageRank, Anchor Text and Proximity (algorithms) that made Google the best search engine are now near expiration.
  • Google is a monopoly in search. It's longevity, Sustainability and Profitability are heavily reliant on search.
  • This begs the question, could PageRank expiration hurt Google Search's market share and its stock price?

In November of 1997 in the paper,"The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine," Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page presented the first prototype of a large-scale search engine called Google. In this paper, Brin and Page elaborate on the three algorithms that would form the backbone of the world's dominant search engine: PageRank, Anchor Text and Proximity. Anchor Text and Proximity contributed to making Google Search unique but it was PageRank that made it revolutionary. PageRank brought order to the web. It was able to democratize search.

"PageRank treats a link from web page A to web page B as a “vote” by page A in favor of page B. The PageRank of a page is the sum of the pages that link to it. The PageRank of a web page also depends on the importance (or PageRank) of the other web pages casting the votes. Votes cast by important web pages with high PageRank weigh more heavily and are more influential in deciding the PageRank of pages on the web."

This idea of "voting" made search results more relevant. The results you got were not just advertisers but they were relevant to individual search. This idea made Google Search better than the search engines that existed then: Yahoo! Search, Ask Jeeves (now Ask.com), WebCrawler, Excite and HotBot.
But very soon (2017), the patent on PageRank will expire.

"The first version of the PageRank technology was created while Larry and Sergey attended Stanford University, which owns a patent to PageRank. The PageRank patent expires in 2017." Google Inc.'s 10K for fiscal year ended December 31st, 2009.

Reasons Investors Should Not be worried

The Google Search today transcends PageRank: Google (Alphabet Inc-C (NASDAQ:GOOG)) has a myriad of proprietary technology: Google, YouTube, DoubleClick, DART, AdSense, AdWords, Gmail, I’m Feeling Lucky, PageRank, Blogger, Orkut, Picasa, SketchUp, and Postini are registered trademarks in the US. In addition, the company has many other unregistered trademarks that make it unique: Jaiku, Android, Open Handset Alliance, OpenSocial, Panoramio, Knol etc. All these contribute to making Google Search more powerful and more relevant.
Besides, over the years, Google has made PageRank, Anchor Text and Proximity more complex and more sophisticated. PageRank itself, cannot be the same as the one developed in 1997. Google has been gearing their search to outsmart any copycats once their patent expires in 2017. In almost two decades, Google has made search better and more complex.
Furthermore, it is also possible that the uniqueness of PageRank is a myth. Search is comprised of hundreds or thousands of unique algorithms that have been developed to handle and effectively claw through the immense amount of data on the web.
Making PageRank almost irrelevant to search at this point, Google has developed other projects that make its search unique and robust. They have developed storage mechanisms for data recall. The magnitude of this data e.g. scanned books, would take too much time and capital for anyone to effectively emulate them.
Lastly, Google's exclusive license expired in 2011 but no one has had the audacity to challenge them in the last six years. Stanford can give a license to anyone it wants since Google does not own the code. Therefore, it is possible that little will change after 2017.

Reasons Investors Should Be Worried

But if PageRank is a such a simple idea and people can develop better search algorithms, you would wonder why no search engine produces better results than Google? Why did Google extend its patent exclusivity from 2001 to 2011 if PageRank was so insignificant?

We believe that the idea of "democratizing" the web is an inherent feature of PageRank that other companies can use to improve search results relative to Google Search. This could have a negative impact on Google Search's dominance as search is the major driver of Google revenues.

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Source: Alphabet/Google's 2015 10K

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Source:  Statista

From Alphabet's recent 10-k and Google's Search revenues from Statista, you will realize that Search has been ~92%, ~90%, ~90% of total revenues in 2013-2015 respectively. Although there are many facets of Google Search, we wanted to highlight the significance of Search for Google and why the expiration of PageRank could be a big deal.

Another reason why this could negatively impact Google Search is because Google does not own hardware that is widely used e.g. smartphones or computers. That means if the biggest smartphone and computer makers develop an efficient search engine that closely mimics Google search, they can make their hardware work better with their search engines instead of using Google. For instance, Microsoft tries to promote Microsoft Edge on the Surface and Apple promotes Safari on the Mac. Players like Apple are trying to diversify their revenue streams from iPhones and search would not be a bad idea.

Lastly, we believe that investors will be less patient with Google's side projects should search revenues start to dwindle. One of the major reasons why Google can carry out a multitude of money-losing ventures without worrying investors is because it has been able to deliver. From the figures above, Search has played a huge role in Google's revenue growth. Despite the recent market turbulence, Google has a trailing twelve-month profit margin and operating margin of 21.80% and 25.82% respectively. They also have $71.93 billion in total cash.  These numbers make investors less worried about money-losing ventures.

But if this changes, even slightly, investors might not be so patient and so tolerant with Google or Alphabets side projects.

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Comments on this article and GOOG stock

user profile picture
harshal.patel.1
neutral
First of all, a trademark is not a patent.

Second, Bing did challenge Microsoft with their own IP.

Third, scanned books are completely tangential to search results. Less than a fraction of 1%.

Finally, you never hit on the massive search update that was done with HummingBird.
1 reply
user profile picture
PairWiseCapital
neutral
1. Notice that the patent reference is actually directly from Google's 10-K not me.
2.Bing is actually owned by Microsoft not Google. Bing has always been a microsoft innovation tracing its origin from Microsoft's Metro design language years ago.
3. I did reference scanned books as an advantage
4. Hummingbird is Google's attempt at predictive search. It is an extension to the core Google Search. I used the term "attempt" because Google is not the leader in predictive analytics. As a matter of fact, predictive analytics is in its infancy and no one has successfully been able to replicate it. This is why Google Ventures has been trying to invest in predictive analytics firms. For instance, Google Ventures and the investment arm of the CIA, In-Q-Tel invested in Recorded Venture back in 2010. New start-ups are just emerging in this field: 6Sense, Blue Yonder, Reflektion, Framed Data among others.
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